Archive for the ‘General psychology’ Category

Hello! I’m back! It’s been a hectic year trying to find a balance between my professional and college life. My thesis research had to take priority and unfortunately all posts on this site had to be sacrificed. However, I’m back and more motivated than ever to keep this running with plenty of new content.


My PhD research took quite few turns over the past year. Instead of focusing on emotion research and trying to develop an enactive theory, I’ve concentrated my efforts to a more pressing matter (well, more pressing in my opinion). That issue is research methodologies in psychology. Essentially, how can we do the research that may contribute to developing an enactive theory of emotion.

I’ve touched on this in a few posts, but now I find I have a lot more to say. So let’s get right to the matter, shall we?


Traditional information processing approaches to understanding perception and response to the environment take an analytic perspective to understanding the relationship between a person and the world. The important characteristics of stimuli in cognitive psychology tasks tend to relate to perceptual or structural aspects of those stimuli (their contrast, order or presentation, duration of presentation and so on). These different aspects of stimuli are typically examined in isolation and our understanding of the multi-faceted nature situations is built up in some kind of additive sense from various findings. Such standard experiments provide us with precision and reliability in measurements that are important in the development of a clear and adequate science.

However, a long but generally disparate tradition of research within cognitive psychology shows that the *meaning* of the stimulus may also have significant implications for how a person reacts to or uses those stimuli. The classic example is the content effects associated with the Wason selection task (Wason, 1966). It is generally believed that performance in the task changes when the stimuli content is varied, which has been used to argue that human cognitive architecture contains domain-specific inference systems (Fiddick, Cosmides & Tooby, 2000).

Recently developing perspectives within Psychology, such as the “enactive” approach (Varela et al; Di Paolo et al) argue that we need to replace our existing analytic modes of research with models that also afford more synthetic thinking, without sacrificing the rigour and discipline of proper scientific practice. An enactive approach sees not just the individual aspects of a stimulus or situation as important, but the overall meaning of the stimulus or task as playing a significant role in how we construct our thinking and acting at given time.
At present, however, while the enactive approach has grown considerably within the theoretical literature and within the areas of artificial life and other certain areas of robotics, it has yet to make a big impact within the domain of human behavioural research.


So now that we’ve acknowledged this, where do we go from here?

Asian man in a lab coat giving a shrug on a white background

My research is aiming at developing methodologies to allow a more mixed-method approach. This idea is that data from this will provide clarity in a way psychological research hasn’t before. Is there a way of developing from the bedrock of traditional approaches and providing a holistic overview that will benefit enactive, e,bodied and extended mind research? I really think so.

And if you’re following this blog, maybe you can help contribute your ideas. Much more to follow.


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Psychologists have argued that components of emotional functioning are a small part of cognition as a whole. I however, believe that emotion plays a more fundamental role. Through enactive theory (Varela et al 1991), we can explore and flesh out much more comprehensive accounts of consciousness. This can be done through integrating phenomenological research methods and third person sciences.

Research in emotion can play a particularly vital role in this. Research is currently being carried out (Colombetti 2008; Hutto 2010 and others) which is particularly interesting. My own research centres on exploring phenomenological accounts of emotional experience and linking it with the physiological elements associated with the experience. This may lead to a more comprehensive understanding of cognitive functioning and the role that emotion plays. Similar to neurophenomenological understanding, this allows a mixed method approach to cognitive behaviour.

Our desires, motivations and actions all require understanding. Without an emotional or affective dimension of this understanding, we would be acting in and experiencing the world in a purely passive way. However (and this is where the enactive literature steps in) we actively engage with the environment in every possible way. We can even liken our dreams or fantasies down to the experience we have (or do not have) with the world, as we are an active agent in it. In enactive terms, we en-act our Umwelt (or life world) and bring about our own understanding of the world.

Enactive theorists use the example of a bacterium striving toward an area of high glucose concentration to survive. Instead of cognition being a computational interaction, it is much more of a dynamic and fluid system. To use another enactive reference, cognition is much more like a handshake between environment and living organism that an organism psychologically and physiologically interacting with the environment in a passive and reflexive way. An important point to mention is that I would hardly attribute emotional understanding or higher cognitive functioning to basic organisms like bacterium.

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After correcting 30 assignments or so, I need a forum to vent my frustration of undergraduate students. Apart from the special few who can actually articulate themselves, there seems to be general mistakes being made across the board.

This may be a result of many students never receving writing feedback from assignments, perhaps many of them never have the opportunity to reflect on how they are coming across. In any case this post os all about the general traps that most students fall into when writing an assignment. Apart from simply learning how to write clearly, there are many things that all students should be informed of.

So here you go:

  • Formatting –1.5 or double spaced. It becomes imposible to read unless you present your work clearly. This type of spacing in general across the board and students are told from the very start of their term as a third-level student
  • Stick to one style (or a similar style) of formatting e.g. labelling section, margins and spacing paragraphs. Having paragrahs 1cm from the edge of the paper in one section and 3cm in the next is just not acceptable. Take pride in what you present
  • Space out sections adequately. By adequately, I mean make sure that all sections are clearly presented and not on top of each other
  • Label sections clearly – for the love of God!
  • In-text citation is generally done incorrectly. See academic handbook for the specifics on your college’s referencing system. APA is generally straighforward.

Incorrect: Jones, as cited in Martin 1995; Jones 1992 as Martin discusses; or indeed mentioning Jones (1992) without any reference to Martin (the cited source), and NOT including Jones in the reference section… you know this sticks out like a sore thumb and feels like a knife in the eye for each time ot is done.

Correct: Jones (1992, as cited in Martin 1995)…

  • Too much information put into single paragraphs. This is done cnsistently. Try to elaborate on ONE point perparagraph. Having said that, one and two sentence paragraphs are generally unacceptable
  • Sentences not logically following on from each other… please read what you write
  • Phrasing an issue for some; try to use clear and short sentences
  • Use  of informal language and personal pronouns e.g. use of ‘I’ and ‘my’ . This should NEVER appear in an academic essay/assignment
  • Use of subjective/dramatic adjectives. I don’t care if it’s REALLY RADICAL. I’ll make my mind up on that, thank you…
  • Important statements being made without academic support.
  • Topical issues – use of current topics such as political posters and current advertisements without references or academic support
  • Concluding in one sentence/one sentence paragraphs. You should be shot.

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Referencing APA style

Referencing is an essential part of research and allows a standardised method of acknowledging sources of information and ideas that you have used in your assignment in a way that uniquely identifies their source.

The most common referenced items include:

  • Direct quotations
  • Facts and figures
  • Ideas and theories, from both published and unpublished works

If ever in doubt – include a reference.

However, there is a plethora of items from which you can reference, including podcasts, films and brochures. In this post, I’m going to run through the most important considerations when referencing, specifically drawing from the APA method (same as Harvard referencing except with technical differences in citation and bibliography).

Okay, first things first – stick to one style of referencing per assignment. You cannot jump from footnotes, to Harvard to APA. It looks clumsy and that you don’t know what you’re doing. Your assignment/thesis/essay is an academic representation of you and your ability to comment on a particular area. It should be tidy and have a consistent flow. If you’re using multiple styles of referencing you are literally throwing marks/grades away for something that can be easily accounted for.

Referencing is necessary to avoid plagiarism, to verify quotations, and to enable readers to follow-up and read more fully the cited author’s arguments.

A reference list only includes books, articles etc that are cited in the text. In contrast, a bibliography is a list of relevant sources for background or for further reading. The reference list is arranged alphabetically by author. Where an item has no author it is cited by its title, and ordered in the reference list or bibliography alphabetically by the first significant word of the title. The APA style requires the second and subsequent lines of the reference to be indented, as shown in the examples below, to highlight the alphabetical order.

The following are a step by step guide to referencing APA style. Click on images to enlarge.

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“She had deceived herself in supposing that she could be whatever she wanted to be…” (Tolstoy, 1956 p. 256).

Free will is one of the many controversies in psychology. The problem of free will has been greatly debated in philosophy and theology for centuries. As science developed, we have come to understand the natural physical laws once attributed to supernatural or mystical forces. The debate between free will and determinism is important for psychologists today in order to understand some of the underlying principles in the theories we readily practice. Free will may not be particularly important to practicing psychologists today as the deterministic principles on which the science has been developed from is often taken for granted. Take for example an ABA tutor working with an autistic adolescent. The tutor would hardly attribute the behaviour of the individual to deterministic laws to which we identify stimulus and reinforcement, it’s not as clear-cut. We identify the cause and effect relationship but it does not satisfyingly discredit free will. The problem with free will and determinism may become more problematic if psychology commands for all individuals to be treated as deterministic agents. In this article I am going to primarily discuss the impact of a phenomenological approach to psychological principles. In doing so, I wish to draw from the phenomenological work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and contemporary psychological research on free will.

Free will and determinism are not opposites (Gross, 2009). Free will can be understood as the ability to be in control of your own actions, emotions and relative being. Determinism can be divided into two extremes  – soft determinism (a term suggested by William James in 1890) is a form of determinism which claims that it is not possible to identify all the physical laws involved on our psychological processes; strict (or hard) determinism suggests that everything can be determined through physical laws.

Phenomenological social psychology explores the problem of free will in more detail. Phenomenology is about lived experience and how people live their day to day lives. Often in psychology we pay particular attention on specific aspects of human behaviour or brain functions in the case of neuropsychological research etc. Merleau-Ponty (1962) states ‘I am free to act in the face of my world; my freedom is shaped in turn by this world.” This can be seen as a form of soft determinism on the human experience. Life experience and environmental factors are important in understanding human behaviour. Genetics, socio-biology and neuropsychological research are often derived from strict deterministic principles and we may be losing touch to what it means to be human. If we take the term ‘situated freedom’ we refer to neither absolute freedom nor an absolute determinism (Valle and Halling, 1989).

Merleau-Ponty comments that behaviourism is inadequate as it reduces human beings to purely ‘reactors to the world’. As he sees it, we ‘exist in a relationship with the environment in which each partially determines the other’. The issue of free will is extensively argued in Phenomenology and Cognitive psychology, but for the purpose of this article I wanted to mention an important area of research on human experience (see Dreyfus 2002 and Storey 2009).

The video below is taken from the movie Waking Life in which philosophical concepts are explored. The clip speaks of free will and our knowledge of physics (a little off the point but an amusing look at the philosophical and psychological understanding of determinism).

Now to introduce a less abstract approach to free will, Daniel Dennet has argued extensively on free will and determinism in science. Psychology, as a science, is seen to adopt deterministic principles. Dennet (2003) argues that our brains can be seen as causally determined. Dennet also states that although we may be causally determined it is incorrect to assume that we are not morally responsible for our behaviour (Gross, 2009). Baumeister et al. (2009) believes that a disbelief in free will ma y lead to aggressive behaviour. Vohs and Schooler (2008) noticed increased cheating behaviour in individuals who declared a disbelief in free will. The authors suggest that moral behaviour rests on a belief in free will. These articles do not comment on whether we have free will or not, but they do show that free will may have a function in our behaviour.

Recently, Meyen (2009) has reviewed research on free will and forensic psychology. The claim reacts to Morse (22008) who asks the question – why is free will the conclusion for one’s actions? A ‘lack in free will’ is not seen as an appropriate response in the testimonies and reports of psychologist s and psychiatrists. The research highlights a confusion surrounding free will in this particular aspect of psychology.

In reading about the problem of free will it is clear that there is a lot of confusion and conflicting arguments, particularly in psychology. Dennet (2003) comments on ‘doublethink’ wherein we posit a particular view (deterministic principles determining behaviour) yet actively engage in activities we regard ourselves as free actions or under our control (Gross, 2009). Doublethink can be extended into other disciplines – take for example a strict religion. A strict religious argument may state that everything in the universe (including our behaviour and mind) is controlled by a force they call God. This all knowing force eliminates the possibility of free will as the entity has created the laws to which the universe works. This can be likened to a strict deterministic argument – we are just not using the word God as an ultimate force and using the understanding we have of how the universe works and construing that everything is determined. A strict deterministic argument and a fundamentalist argument of free will are similar in a number of ways and it seems to be suggesting an exemption to moral responsibility.

A ‘soft’ determinism appears to be the best approach to the problem of free will for psychologists and scientists. Whether or not we have free will has little impact on the psychological principles in psychology today (deterministic principles do have their merits) – yet I wanted to highlight that there: a) is a problem with the ethics of an underlying hard deterministic approach that psychologists may need to be aware of; b) there appears to be a functional relationship between human behaviour and belief in free will that psychologists can investigate further: c) a strict determinism (or fatalism) I think, is not sufficient and it may not be necessary. As scientists we may have to confront the issue that there may be concepts that we are unable to understand fully and free will is one of them.


Dennet, D. (2003). Freedom Evolves. London: Allen Lane.

Dilman, I. (1999). Free Will. London & New York: Routledge.

Dreyfus, H. (2002). Intelligence without representation – Merleau-Ponty’s critique of mental representation. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences , 367–383.

Gross, R. (2009). Themes, Issues and Debates in Psychology. London: Hodder Education.

Meynen, G. (2009). Should or should not forensic psychiatrists think about free will? Med Health Care and Philos , 203-212.

Storey, D. (2009). Spirit and/or Flesh. PhaenEx, vol. 4, no. 1 , 59-83.

Tolstoy, L. (1956). Anna Karenina, trans. Rosemary Edmunds. London: Penguin Classics.

Valle, R., & Halling, S. (1989). Existential-Phenomenological Perspectives in Psychology: Exploring the Breadth of human experience. New York: Plenum Press.

Vohs, L., & J., S. (2008). The Value of Believing in Free Will. Psychological Science, Vol. 12, No. 1 , 49-54.


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This post will concern itself with how to summarize academic articles and what is the best way to prepare an academic essay (exam or term paper).

Most academic articels are broken down in the following sections:

  • Conclusion/Discussion – the end of the article, discusses implications of study and highlights contributions
  • Introduction/Literature review – may be very useful for a summary of the approaches considered
  • Method – the methodology employed by the researcher (s) in the study
  • Results – this is really the bones of the articel (of the other sections are the flesh and ligaments!). It shows either statistically or qualitatively the results that prove/disproves the hypothesis

Summarising articles well will really help with your research, especially when it comes to exams and essays. A useful summary will:

  • Make specific ties to your research
  • Highlight the argument of the study, i.e. findings, contribution to the area

When it comes to formulating a research proposal, answering an essay question or approaching an exam question, descriptive answers are usually redundant. You are usually asked to critically analyse (although they may not use the term ‘critically analyse’, they may say ’discuss, compare and contrast’ – this is all the similar ways of asking you to critically analyse). If we wanted to know the descriptive  details, we would open the book ourselves. You are really being asked to show adequate research of the field, an understanding of topic and appropriate material choice. You are basically demonstrating your ability to comment on a specific area of research, this is what you are usually graded on.

Early in the research:

  • Starting early is obviously ideal
  • Write a little, often
  • Gather your sources – most relevant articles
  • Establish your argument and where you are coming from
  • Stick to the argument – your essay must have a clear thread
  • Understand your argument – if you don’t, the reader won’t
  • Make sure you actually answer the question, it’s so easy to go off on a tangent
  • It’s not about the ‘right’ answer, it’s about adapting your knowledge on the topic and demonstrating an ability to comment on the area

A good metaphor or example of assignment structure is seen above with my example of a filter. Structuring your answer as a filter will allow your argument develop in a concise and comprehensive way. The example of a filter is suitable to essays, article summaries and exam essay questions. You generally introduce the topic to the reader, introduce your argument (1st paragraph) and then argue ruthlessly for your side of the argument! A good argument will also discuss contradicting arguments and evidence, but generally you will strengthen your own argument by doing so (as long as you don’t present a bunch of contradiction, which will seem like you don’t understand the material).

Another good metaphor for putting your academic assignment is to imagine the topic as a circle. In order to starts and establish your argument, you must look at the evidence and pick a point on a circle (the part of research most appealing to you) and construct your argument. In an academic assignment, choosing the material is your personal opinion on the area of research, which is why using personal conjecture is generally frowned upon.

Another useful (yet obvious) piece of advice is ALWAYS back up your work! Prepare for the unlikely or you may lose the will to live!! I’ve lost a few essays back in the day for not backing up correctly. I recommend using a memory stick and a storage site like dropbox. Alternatively you could email the file to yourself. Just make sure there is another copy of your work and save as you go! Obvious advice yet probably the most important and easiest to overlook!

Time management

–      Ideally, start early and write a little often

–      Leave enough time to gather all your resources (as in not the night before)

–      The subjectivity of research – some people will be able to reproduce the same quality of work in 45 minutes that others may take days to come up with

–      You know your limits and capabilities. I honestly could not leave it until the week of the deadline to find all my sources. Even gathering the appropriate material early is a major advantage

Resource management

–      Gather all your notes, lecture notes, selected articles and other material

–      Work as you see fit

–      Make notes, write paragraphs, memorise theories, whatever works best for you

Remember nobody is trying to catch you out, we were all in the same position at some stage – we know what it is like and don’t give exams/assignments for the fun of it.

Key terms

  • ANALYZE: Break into separate parts and discuss, examine, or interpret each part.
  • COMPARE: Examine two or more things. Identify similarities and differences. Comparisons generally ask for similarities more than differences.
  • CONTRAST: Show differences. Set in opposition.
  • DISCUSS: Consider and debate or argue the pros and cons of an issue. Write about any conflict. Compare and contrast.
  • EVALUATE: Give your opinion or cite the opinion of an expert. Include evidence to support the evaluation.
  • ILLUSTRATE: Give concrete examples. Explain clearly by using comparisons or examples.
  • OUTLINE: Describe main ideas, characteristics, or events.
  • SUMMARIZE: Give a brief, condensed account. Include conclusions. Avoid unnecessary details.

This post presents material I would generally give in a typical of a class. I give tutorials in academic writing for undergrad psychology students just getting started but I altered the material to suit pretty much any field of research.

I hope that some of the advice helps, however its certainly doesn’t suit everyone. In a class setting I usually get feedback from people who disagree with the approaches presented here or individuals who don’t find it helpful. This would usually result in me creating an individualised study plan for the student. If you would like more advice or help just leave me a comment and I’ll be sure to get back to you – even if I cannot directly help, I may know where to go for the best advice tailored to your needs!

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Connectionism was explicitly put forward as an alternative to the classical computer based paradigm of the cognitive science approach. Many philosophers see connectionism as a basis for denying structured symbols. Empirical evidence from neuroscience shows that no symbol, proposition, sentence, or algorithm can be found in the brain. There must be an alternative, more basic, mechanism for the representation and processing of knowledge. The goal of the connectionist approach is to construct an abstract model of the neural processes taking place in the brain.

Connectionist models seem particularly well matched to what we know about neurology. Neural networks are also particularly well adapted for problems that require the resolution of many conflicting constraints in parallel. There is ample evidence from research in artificial intelligence that cognitive tasks such as object recognition, planning, and even coordinated motion present problems of this kind.

The main components of connectionism:

Knowledge is distributed: One of the central claims associated with the parallel distributed processing approach is that knowledge is coded in a distributed fashion. Localist representations within this perspective are widely rejected. Bowers (2002) notes that connectionist networks can learn localist representations and many connectionist models depend on localist coding for their functioning. He argues that there are fundamental challenges that have not been addressed by connectionist theories that are readily accommodated within localist approaches. In word and non-word naming tasks, it has been found that distributed representations make it difficult for participants to name monosyllabic items and deal with more complex language phenomena. Neural networks have great difficulty in representing information that specifies who is doing what with whom and with what (eg John hit Paul with the hammer). In contrast, models that learn localist representations support many of the core language functions that connectionist models fail to account for. It is concluded that the common refection of localist coding schemes and complete reliance on distributed representations within many connectionism theories may be premature, and more research needs to be conducted in order to understand it fully.

Knowledge is stored by content: The connectionist processing and learning paradigm has many implications. Due to its associative processing mechanism, it has a content‐addressable memory. Connectionism suggests that this is due to the fact that the incoming pattern of activation that occurs when thinking of something, has matching parts to a previous pattern and this is sufficient to reactivate other parts of the pattern. It is hard to achieve in classical architectures, where items are typically accessed on the basis of knowing where they were stored.

Norman (1981) “information is not stored anywhere in particular. Rather, it is stored everywhere”. An immediate consequence of connectionism is that memories are deeply sensitive to context.

Graceful degradation is another feature that is typical of natural and artificial nervous systems; if small parts of the network are damaged, this has only small effects on its overall performance. Learning is based on a process of self‐organization on a pre-linguistic level.

Information is processed in parallel:  Neural networks often have many hundreds of thousands of small units, each processing different information. Connectionism implies that information is not serially processed, but many computations are performed simultaneously in parallel. Townsend (2004) argues that it is extremely difficult to entirely separate reasonable serial and parallel models on the basis of typical data. The study found strong evidence for pure serial and pure parallel processing, with differences occurring across individuals and inter-stimulus conditions.

Inactive knowledge is nowhere: Knowledge is represented by a pattern of activation in connectionism. When that pattern is not active, the information is not represented in the system. Activation flows directly from inputs to hidden units and then on to the output units. More realistic models of the brain would include many layers of hidden units, and recurrent connections that send signals back from higher to lower levels. Such recurrence is necessary in order to explain such cognitive features as short term memory. Connectionists tend to avoid recurrent connections because little is understood about the general problem of training recurrent nets. However Elman (1991) and others have made some progress with simple recurrent nets, where the recurrence is tightly constrained (Garson, 2007).

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